The aeronauts windlass, p.54
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.54
 

           Jim Butcher

  Grimm knew that he should be presenting a stoic, solid, unmoving example to his men, become a graven image of steadfast discipline and determination—but he simply could not remain still. He could feel Predator’s grace, the light and easy way she moved through the air, could feel the fierce, proud joy that filled her as she rushed into battle.

  All of which was ridiculous, on a purely rational level. Grimm knew that, with his head.

  His heart knew better.

  As Predator’s war song swept up in pitch and volume, a crewman erupted into a howling cry of his own. Grimm realized, with something of a start, that the scream was coming from his own throat.

  The bellow from the crew, a beat later, was the loudest Grimm had ever heard, despite their depleted numbers, and he could hear Creedy shouting with the rest of them.

  The grey mist abruptly lightened, turning paler grey, then pearly, then white—and a breath later, Predator exploded out of the mezzosphere and into the wide blue sky.

  Mister Kettle had timed his approach perfectly. They emerged from the cloud cover almost directly beneath the Mistshark, traveling at almost exactly the same speed, only a few hundred yards out. In their first attack run, surprise had been on Predator’s side. Now speed was everything.

  “Fire at will!” Grimm shouted.

  “Fire, fire, fire!” Creedy cried, relaying the command to the gun crews.

  Predator’s seven cannon fired almost simultaneously. Even though his men had instructions to fire only at the enemy’s web, from their angle beneath the Mistshark there was no way to absolutely guarantee that the blasts would miss the ship itself, but his crews performed well. The ventral web burst into flame and began drooping and falling as multiple blasts struck it. A pair of stray shots went past the web and crashed against the Mistshark’s active shroud, and were harmlessly absorbed as a sudden sphere of greenish light surrounded the airship.

  Grimm could all but feel the shock and dismay of the enemy crew. He did not blame them. For an airship to pursue a wounded foe with such perfect precision from within the misty veil of the mezzosphere was a feat so improbable as to approach impossibility.

  But more vitally, he knew that even now, the Mistshark’s gunners would be frantically depressing the snouts of their weapons to fire down at Predator the instant their pilot rocked the ship enough to give them a clean shot.

  Grimm waited until he saw the enemy ship begin to roll to present her broadside to Predator, and then called, “Ascend!”

  Mister Kettle threw the ship into her new maximum amount of climb, and Grimm staggered and nearly fell despite his grip on the handrail. Predator sailed as swiftly and cleanly as a worthy soul winging to its eternal reward. Eight of the enemy cannon rent the air Predator had just departed with their fury, and the single blast that did manage to strike home brought forth only the incandescent green gleam of Predator’s own protective shroud.

  Grimm had timed their maneuver successfully. The Mistshark’s gunners tried to track Predator as she rose but reached the limit of their elevation short of catching up to the lighter, faster ship. In order to track back onto Predator, the Mistshark’s pilot would have to rock the ship back up to level and onto her other side, all while being dragged forward, listing and pitching, by the uneven pull of a single quarter of her web. Shifting that much awkward mass against its own momentum and inertia would require crucial seconds—seconds Grimm had no intention of giving away.

  “Fire!” he called.

  Again the gunners did their job. A single stray blast slipped through the web and flashed against the enemy’s shroud, but the other half dozen raked through the Mistshark’s last remaining length of web, tearing it from the ship and setting it ablaze.

  Mistshark’s acceleration immediately dropped to nothing, her drunken, wallowing form now gliding forward on nothing but waning momentum. Desperate signal rockets again flashed away from her, and Grimm saw the enemy ship struggling to stabilize itself with its trim crystals alone—a tricky proposition without enough forward motion to allow the more responsive maneuvering planes to assist with the task, and until it was completed, the Mistshark was virtually helpless against Predator’s mobility. As long as Kettle could keep their ship out of the firing arcs of Mistshark’s cannon, Predator could pour fire down upon the enemy without reservation or fear of reply—and Mister Kettle knew his business as well as any man alive.

  Kettle guided Predator into a high arc, rolling the ship onto her starboard side to present their broadside to the enemy, slowing just enough to give the gun crews the cleanest shot possible.

  Grimm felt his stomach twist, and he tried to swallow through a dry throat.

  He was about to find out whether or not his duty would require him to murder Calliope and her crew.

  He flipped down the telescoptic on his goggles and focused his attention intently on the Mistshark.

  “By the numbers!” Grimm shouted. “Fire!”

  “Gun two!” Creedy bellowed. “Fire!”

  The frontmost cannon of the starboard side of the ship howled, its blast smashing into Mistshark’s straining shroud.

  “Gun four!” Creedy called. “Fire!”

  The second starboard gun unleashed its fury, hammering down at the enemy’s shroud, hungry for the vulnerable, unarmored airship beneath.

  “Gun six! Fire!”

  The Mistshark’s shroud’s bright illumination grew dimmer, more translucent.

  “Gun eight! Fire!”

  The blast scorched the topmost mast of the enemy ship—and Grimm saw what he had been looking for: A tall, lean figure—Calliope herself, he supposed—rushed the aft dorsal mast and smacked a boarding ax down onto one of the lines running up it. The line parted, and the Mistshark’s Dalosian colors, a white star upon a bisected red-andblue field, went fluttering down toward the ship’s deck, in the aeronaut’s universal signal of surrender.

  “Cease fire!” Grimm roared. “Cease fire!”

  “Cease fire!” Creedy echoed to the crews.

  And the reverberating, thunderous howl of the last shot from the number eight gun faded and vanished into the open blue. The Mistshark lay quietly, meekly beneath them as Kettle brought Predator around, keeping the enemy covered with her starboard cannon. Grimm let Creedy and Kettle handle the maneuvering, while he watched the enemy’s gunners. They were, in proper form, retracting their cannon back into their secure position, where they would be unable to fire.

  It would appear that their surrender was genuine—though it was Calliope, after all. Grimm would proceed by the numbers, without dropping his guard. He felt a fierce smile stretch his lips. “Mister Creedy,” he called. “Fire up the launch, if you please. Signal to Captain Ransom my compliments: ‘Surrender and prepare to be boarded.’ ”

  The cheer that rose up from his aeronauts made the planking beneath Grimm’s feet vibrate, and he fancied that Predator was voicing her triumph along with the men who crewed her.

  Within a quarter of an hour, Calliope crossed to Predator on her launch, its steam engine chugging the little craft steadily over from the Mistshark. She had two crewmen with her to manage the launch, in addition to both of Master Ferus’s missing wagons and a slender volume matching the one in Grimm’s coat pocket, stolen from the Great Library.

  If Calliope had just been soundly defeated by a smaller, less heavily armed vessel, it did not show in her swagger or her confident expression. If she was intimidated by the dozen or so primed gauntlets being aimed at her, it could not be seen from the outside.

  She stepped up to the bow of the launch as it docked with Predator with her usual smirk on her lips. “Permission to come aboard, Francis?”

  Grimm reminded himself that she was calling him by that name only because she knew it annoyed him, and that he should not surrender to manipulation. “Granted,” he called calmly.

  Calliope hopped down onto Predator’s deck and peered around the ship curiously as she paced to the bridge and ascended the steps to it. “Well, wel
l, well,” she said. “That was a bit of a surprise. What on earth have you been feeding her?”

  “Enemies.”

  Calliope threw her head back and laughed.

  “Book, please,” Grimm said.

  She tossed him the volume amiably, and he caught it. “You’ve no idea the foul looks I collected when I went to get it.”

  “Did the Aurorans give you any trouble about striking your colors?”

  “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” she said breezily. “I must admit, Francis, you do gorgeous work. That was excellently done—though you’d never have beaten me in a fair fight.”

  “I avoid them,” Grimm replied. “So do you.”

  Her teeth flashed very white when she smiled. “True.”

  Grimm nodded to Creedy, who sent several men to take charge of recovering the wagons from the Mistshark’s launch. They bustled the wagons away toward the etherealist’s cabin without delay.

  Calliope watched them go. “That takes care of the preliminaries, I suppose,” she said. “What do you intend to do with my crew?”

  “I mean to return them, and you, to Spire Albion for arrest and trial,” Grimm said. “The Aurorans will be taken prisoners of war and treated accordingly.”

  Calliope shook her head. “You mean to have my crew tried as civilians for committing an act of war? They’ll never submit to that. No Albion court would give them a fair trial and they know it. They’ll call them pirates and hang them.”

  “Possibly,” Grimm said. “On the other hand, if you refuse to surrender, then by the articles of war I could blast your ship down to the surface here and now. Which alternative do you think they’d find more attractive?”

  Calliope’s face darkened, and she clenched her jaw a few times before answering. “My crew are soldiers, fighting as soldiers. They will be tried and judged as soldiers in a time of war.”

  “Or what?” Grimm asked mildly.

  Calliope stared at him, her mouth working on words that never quite formed, her eyes all but glowing with the heat of her anger. Then she closed her eyes and muttered a savage curse beneath her breath. “Or what?” Grimm asked again, in exactly the same tone.

  “You’ve made your point,” she said in a bitter tone. “You’ve made your point, you bastard. I am in no position to make demands of you.”

  “No, Captain Ransom, you certainly are not,” Grimm said.

  Calliope made a face as though she had just bitten into a piece of rotten vat meat. “I . . . request that my crew be taken as prisoners of war and held as such, Captain Grimm. Please.”

  Grimm nodded slowly several times. “I want you to know something.”

  She frowned and peered at him.

  “I know that you didn’t have to use the firing pattern you did at the Landing shipyard,” he said. “You could have targeted Predator first, instead of last.”

  “Yes,” she said simply.

  “I also want you to know that I realize why you offered me that contract the last time you came aboard. You didn’t want me to be present for what was going to happen. You wanted Predator out of harm’s way.”

  Her head moved in what may have been the barest fraction of a nod.

  “Why?” Grimm asked.

  Calliope looked away. The question hung heavy in the silence. After a moment she said, “Once, she was my home too.”

  Grimm’s stomach stabbed with a little ache of echoed pain he thought he’d left behind him.

  “I remember,” he said quietly. “Captain Ransom, I hereby declare your crew, your passengers, and yourself prisoners under the articles of war. Mister Creedy, make a note to that effect in the ship’s log.”

  “Aye, Captain,” Creedy said firmly.

  Calliope closed her eyes for a moment and then nodded once to him. Her lips began to shape words several times, but evidently she could not force herself to actually say them.

  Grimm had his victory. There was no point in rubbing it in any further. “Your thanks are not necessary, Captain Ransom. I will be sending engineers back with you to board the Mistshark and disable your cannon. You will sail with Predator back to Spire Albion. You will be under my guns the entire way. If you deviate from any order I give, no matter how slightly, I will open fire. Do you understand?”

  “I’m not an idiot, Francis.”

  Grimm fought against annoyance but felt a muscle at the corner of his mouth twitch despite his best efforts. Calliope saw it too, and her smirk settled back into place upon her lips.

  “I suppose not,” Grimm said. “All the same, Calliope, the past several days have been an almighty trial. Do not test m—”

  “Contact!” shouted one of the lookouts in Predator’s dorsal mast. “Captain, contact!”

  Grimm’s head snapped around toward the lookout. “Where?”

  “Inbound vessel high, west by southwest, coming fast!”

  An airship coming from the west? But the Fleet was operating exclusively east of their current position. . . .

  Grim’s stomach clenched and he felt his knees go a little loose and unsteady.

  He turned, flipping down his telescoptic again, and spotted the incoming airship at once, heading for them at breakneck speed. He studied her through the telescoptic carefully, and tried to ignore the way his heart had begun beating faster and his hands had begun shaking.

  “Calliope,” he said quietly. “You don’t need to be here. Get in your launch and go. Now.”

  He heard her draw in a small, sharp breath of her own as she saw the approaching ship. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to surrender.”

  Grimm gave her a look over his shoulder.

  Her smirk turned bitter. “Ah. No. Of course not. Duty.”

  She shook her head, and with a few easy strides was off the bridge and heading back to her launch.

  “Sound general quarters, if you please, Mister Creedy.Come about. Extend the web around the clock and get us moving.”

  The XO boomed out the orders, and once again the ship’s bell began to ring. Men scrambled for their posts, quickly recinching their safety harnesses. Aeronuts swarmed into the masts, playing out the expansive lengths of the ship’s web and getting Predator under way.

  Grimm stood motionless on the bridge, watching the menacing shape of AAV Itasca growing larger with unnerving rapidity, and wondered whether it was already too late to escape.

  Chapter Sixty-seven

  AMS Predator

  Gwen felt rather ridiculous while moving from the infirmary to the bridge. Procedure aboard a ship engaged in combat action was for every crewman to keep at least one and preferably two safety lines secured to contact points at all times. Fixing the heavy metal clips to the secure rings was not the effortless task that the crew of Predator made it look like. Fortunately, runner bars stretching along the length of the deck and some of the internal hallways made the task simpler, if not easy, but nonetheless it took her several minutes to travel no more than eighty feet.

  She reached the bridge just as Commander Creedy began bellowing orders to the ship’s crew, and the deck tilted slightly beneath her feet as Predator began to bank into a turn.

  She was about to climb the steep staircase up to the bridge when the captain of the immobilized Mistshark gripped the handrails and simply slid down them, landing effortlessly on the deck and nearly bowling Gwen over in the process.

  The tall woman gave her an impatient glance, took in the grease and grime on her clothes, and said, “Good God in Heaven, is Journeyman allowing women into his engine room now? What is happening to the world?”

  “Excuse me,” Gwen said.

  “I suppose,” the woman said, and moved at a gliding run down the deck, seemingly uncaring of the way the ship had begun to tilt and shudder, to where a launch had been tied up to Predator’s flank. She vaulted the rail to the launch, nodding to the two rough-looking men crewing it, then began untying the mooring lines.

  Gwen blinked at this behavior. Was the woman not effectively a captive? Was
she escaping? Why on earth was no one putting a stop to it?

  “Halt!” Gwen said, in what she hoped was an authoritative tone. She began to lift her gauntlet to take aim at the escapee, then remembered as she raised her arm that she was not wearing her gauntlet, having spent most of the last day working with components of the ship’s engines. Rather than abort the gesture entirely, which she felt would have looked weak and indecisive, she pointed a stern finger instead and said, “You there! Halt!”

  The enemy captain looked up at her and burst out in a hearty belly laugh. Then she hauled against a lever that slowly kicked the launch out away from Predator. The launch began to fall behind Predator at once, since she wasn’t being driven by any kind of etheric sail. Before the launch fell out of sight astern, the enemy captain called, “You’ve bigger problems than me now, girl!”

  And then the launch fell out of sight behind them.

  Gwen chewed on her lip for a second, then turned and laboriously ascended to the bridge.

  By the time she got there, Predator was fully under way, sailing swiftly into the morning sun, so that she had to squint against its brilliance as she secured her safety lines near where Captain Grimm stood by the pilot’s stand.

  “Good morning, Miss Lancaster,” Grimm said. “What can I do for you?”

  “That woman, the captain of the enemy ship,” Gwen said. “Did you let her go free?”

  “Yes,” Grimm said. A muscle twitched in his jawline.

  “Why on earth would you do that?” she asked.

  “I saw no point in her dy—” He paused for a moment, adjusted his peaked cap carefully, and then said, “I saw no point in giving her an opportunity to distract us during a combat action.”

  Gwen felt her eyes widen. “Oh, dear. Is that what we’re doing?”

  “Odds seem excellent,” Grimm said. “Put your goggles on, Miss Lancaster.”

  Gwen blinked at him, then remembered and cursed herself for looking like an idiot who had never traveled by airship before. Leaving one’s eyes unshielded at this altitude was an invitation to any number of etheric mental disorders, as well as to eventual blindness. She settled her tinted goggles into positon. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why not keep her?”